Monday, August 21, 2017

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace Part 1

I am 647 pages into David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest, a tome of 1,079 pages. I thought I'd post about it now and perhaps again when I'm finished since it's so freaking long and I am about 60% of the way finished. I don't know if I will be able to finish it in 2 weeks before we leave for Europe, and I am definitely not hauling it around with me because of its sheer size plus it's a library borrow. I could buy it on Kindle and continue reading it on my phone, a much easier physical feat.

People seem to either hate or love this book. Friends report having failed at reading it, some having had multiple failures. One friend suggested reading something worthwhile instead -- like the dictionary. I must admit that I run hot and cold depending on what Wallace happens to be riffing about at any particular moment. I say "riffing" because Infinite Jest has a spontaneous feel a lot of the time, not unlike Jack Kerouac, and as someone else on-line pointed out, Wallace definitely has a quite unique style -- something not all authors can claim.

Wallace's powers of description are mighty, both of the environment and of the many quirky characters in the book. He employs numerous pet devices (e.g., abbreviations like w/r/t and R.H.I.P and Q.v.), unusual words you have to look up (too many to pick just one as an example and I think he makes some of them up), strange - and sometimes quite entertaining -- grammatical construction (e.g., "So and but then he like really decided to ...), and is seemingly fixated on certain topics (in particular, vomit). There are times when Wallace sucks me into his world (e.g., when describing life at the halfway house) and other times when I am totally lost and reading just to get to the next engaging part (e.g., the meeting between Steeply and Marathe outside Tucson -- what the Hell are they talking about? -- and the whole dystopian-future world in general). Sometimes Wallace takes pages and pages to describe an event for which it seems a paragraph would suffice. But that is his "thing," I guess, or at least one of them: extremely detailed and free-flowing narrative and description.

The Notes and Errata at the end -- comprising almost 100 pages across 388 entries -- are particularly annoying. They vary from the 8-page fake filmography of a movie producer character to trivial side comments to obviously important backstory. No matter what, you get the sense that you can't skip them for fear of missing something important, and it's a pain-in-the-ass to go back there (often multiple times a page) especially with a hard copy. I ended up using two bookmarks so I could get back-and-forth more efficiently.

The setting -- a dystopian world in the future focused around a tennis academy, a nearby halfway house, and a movie ("Infinite Jest") so addictive that anyone who sees it loses all desire to do anything but watch it -- is certainly not typical or tropish. I could care less about tennis so the over-descriptions of  life at the Enfield Tennis Academy in Massachusetts are a drudge for me. Like I mentioned above, life at the halfway house captures my attention for some reason -- perhaps the over-the-top characters.

To sum, there are some obstacles to reading Infinite Jest -- and I suspect those vary from reader to reader -- but certainly the sheer length is one of them. Add to that Wallace's writing quirks plus the exceedingly strange world he creates and it's easy to understand why many people give up. There are times when I think he wrote the book as a giant dare (as in "I dare you to read this entire thing."). It's also easy to understand why this novel has a cult-like following. It is at various times mesmerizing, funny, entertaining, engaging, and thought-provoking. And it's different in both writing (you have to experience it) and content (there can't be too many novels in which a main character commits suicide by putting his head in a microwave oven).

I'm not recommending Infinite Jest . . . yet. Let's see what I think after 400 more pages. I assume I am nowhere near the climax of the novel let alone the denouement (if there is one), but I am determined to get there. Stay tuned for future thoughts, most likely not until after we get back from Europe.

P.S. What does this have to do with Jack Kerouac? See paragraph #2 above.

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